Please let it end
by Scott Christiansen
August 5-11, 1999 / Vol. 8, Ed. 31
When I’m driving around I’m usually exploring the left end of the FM spectrum. I’m down there a lot because I just think that commercial radio sucks. It’s not the programing or the commercials that turn me off; it’s the programming and the commercials that turn me off.
I usually surf the three not-for-profit-stations, but sometimes I go on fishing expeditions for pirate broadcasters that tend to hang out in the eddies between the noise controlled by the pros. The pirates aren’t always good radio, and they’re not for everybody, but more often than not they make for interesting listening.
Last week I stumbled onto something that entertained me for quite awhile. I’d dipped just deeper than KRUA (88.1) and found, of all things, the Jerry Springer show. I don’t get into talk TV much, but on the radio the show was a blast. People used to call radio “the theater of the mind” — it worked great in that respect; I had the freedom to imagine the faces and bodies of these Twinkie-eaters as Springer refereed. The fights are even more shocking when you can’t see who’s winning and who’s just posing.
I continued to listen to the station every day, taking in Thighmaster spots, more Jerry, some Rikki and some soundtracks from high-concept, low-on-dialogue action TV shows. Creaking doors, running footsteps, screams and the voice of the villain, all backed with bombastic, incidental music, made for a great radio ride.
As it turns out, I’d been listening to a transmitter test for a new rock station at 87.7 FM. Ubik Network Systems, a small Anchorage-based company that launched KQEZ (“EZ 92.1”) and now owns KNIK 105.3 (“The Breeze”) was borrowing Channel 5’s sound to squat the frequency for a new modern rock station called KZND (“The End”). It’ll already have started broadcasting by the time you read this.
Ubik has hired J.J. Michaels, the man behind the rebirth of local modern-rock titan KWHL a few years back, as programmer and morning-show host. Michaels played both those roles for KWHL when he first came to Anchorage. It damn near worked, but he insisted on moving KWHL forward and keeping the song list contemporary, while — according to Michaels — KWHL’s brass relied too much on market research and insisted on keeping a lot of the so-called “classic rock” tracks in the mix. You know, AC/DC’s “You Shook Me All Night Long” and Guns n’ Roses’ “Sweet Child o’ Mine.”
They parted ways, and Michaels has been floating ever since. He’s been doing consulting and leasing out his announcer’s voice, waiting for a chance to program a station his way. When Ubik approached him, he was sorely tempted: Here was a chance to replace all of those tired old hits with new songs and repeat the hell out of them until they become the new tired old rock hits. What programmer could pass up an opportunity to help hand-pick the canon for the next millennium?
So now we have KZND. It will call itself “alternative” — that is, an alternative to the old stuff that’s been repeating endlessly. Soon you’ll have annoying melodies stuck in your head from songs by bands you’d never heard of. Don’t expect too many indy-label groups or locally-produced tracks. Everything KZND has to offer will most likely be pre-approved by the Time/Warner conspiracy. Remember, it costs money to build a media empire, and repetitive radio makes money.
The hype for The End will be relentless: Ubik is planning to pay workers to carry sign boards promoting the station on street corners and cross-promote with Chilkoot Charlie’s, Michaels said. Add bumper stickers and word-of-mouth, and you have what Michaels is calling a “grass-roots campaign” — but clearly this is Astro-Turf. After all, what is Michaels trying to sell other than a space to try and sell something?
During the 24 hours leading up to KZND’s regular programming, Michaels had some fun by programming songs with the word “end” in them, interspersed with historical soundbites and the basso profundo voice of God proclaiming “The End is near.” It was clever for awhile, but the telling sign was the inclusion of Styx’s god-awful ballad “Don’t Let It End.” As the prog-rock wannabes sang, I found myself crying. I was crying, “Please, please make it stop. Burn the master tapes, destroy all the existing CD copies. Execute this band.”
I finally had to turn it off. These folks chose to include an obnoxious song just because it nominally fit their format. Granted, the 24 hours of “end” songs may have little to do with how the station will actually be programmed, but the inclusion of Styx reminded me of the reasons I don’t listen to hit radio to begin with.
KZND formally launched at noon Wednesday with Lenny Kravitz’s “I Want to Get Away,” and within an hour had played U2’s “Bullet the Blue Sky” as well as songs by The Offspring, Limp Bizkit and Collective Soul. Although I can’t stand the heavy rotation, I’ll probably listen to KZND more often than I listen to KWHL — say, perhaps once a week. In fact, I’ve already assigned it my preset button that used to be KWHL’s. I figure it might come in handy when I have U2-lovin’ passengers.
But I’ll miss those few brief days of listening to the disembodied voices from Channel 5. Whatever KZND serves up as an “alternative” from here on out can’t possibly be as good as Jerry Springer audio or the soundtrack to “Friday the Thirteenth.” Now that was radio.
— Scott Christiansen